Examining pop culture in the digital age

Tuesday 16 July 2019 by Nick Adams, Communications and Media

Three stormtroopers at Open Day

Cosplay is a popular fan practice alongside creating fan fiction and fan videos.

In summary

  • Digital age has seen increased visibility of fan practices including fan fiction and fan videos
  • This visibility has also lead to a rise in negative fan practices including fan entitlement and pushback against diversity
  • The Fan Studies Network Australasia Conference will examine how technological and industrial change continues to affect pop culture fandom

You may think that fandom, fan fiction and obsessed fans go hand in hand with the rise of the internet, but the history of fans is much deeper and more complicated than just the comments on a YouTube video.

“We often think of things like fan fiction and fan videos about beloved texts as a really new thing that popped up with YouTube and internet forums, but fan cultures and studies have been around for a long time,” says lecturer with Swinburne’s Centre for Transformative Media Technologies, Dr Jessica Balanzategui, who is an expert in genre films, children’s media, and fan and audience culture.

“For instance, in the 70s and 80s people were making VHS fan videos out of Star Trek clips.”

Dr Balanzategui is currently seeking submissions for the Fan Studies Network Australasia Conference, which will take place at Swinburne from 11-13 December and explore the history, present and future of ‘fan studies’ - the academic study and examination of fans and fandom.

The digital age has arrived

Dr Balanzategui notes that some things have changed with the rise of the digital age, which has put more focus on fan activities.

“One major difference is that the digital age has increased the visibility of fan practices,” she says.

A negative outcome of this is that the formation of toxic environments or toxic fan practices has become a very visible component of modern fandom and, as a result, fan studies.

“Fan entitlement and toxic fan practice is currently a source of pervasive pop cultural debate,” says Dr Balanzategui, citing fans’ reaction to the Game of Thrones final season as an example.

“It is people signing petitions to get the whole last season reshot to meet their particular desires,” she says. “We’ve seen similar issues around Star Wars. With Disney actively trying to make it a more inclusive franchise, which has met with a lot of pushback.”

Jessica Balanzategui outside
Dr Jessica Balanzategui, lecturer in Cinema and Screen Studies and Steering Committee member for Fan Studies Network Australasia Conference.

More than pop culture

The upcoming fan studies conference is particularly looking at how technological and industrial change have affected fans of pop culture and beyond. It will include public events and feature high-profile representatives from various fan organisations and communities.

The conference will feature keynote presentations from international leaders in their fields, such as Dr Suzanne Scott from the University of Texas at Austin, whose recent book, Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry, tackles the problem of toxic fan communities and female participation in traditionally male-centric film franchises.

Another international keynote is Dr Benjamin Woo from Carleton University, Ottawa, author of Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture. He draws on fieldwork in comic book shops, game stores and conventions to uncover the interconnected social practices of fan communities.

Other speakers include Swinburne staff members Dr Bertha Chin, a leading expert in fan cultures, and Professor Melanie Swalwell, a world-renowned video game histories and fan cultures scholar.

“We will explore the intersection between shifts in technology, the way popular culture is delivered, and how audience practices and fan communities develop around popular texts,” says Dr Balanzategui.

“We hope the conference will attract many kinds of scholars from numerous different fields interested in how audiences engage with popular culture - even researchers who wouldn’t necessarily think of themselves as a screen or popular cultural fan scholars. The focus of presentations could be sports, tourism, retail, theme parks, or music - anything that attracts actively engaged audiences.”

“The fact we’ve been asked to host this conference shows that Swinburne has a growing international reputation in popular culture research,” says Dr Balanzategui.

“We use a range of innovative methods to carry out our research, and the community of scholars here - along with the new Centre for Transformative Media Technologies -makes it an exciting time to be a part of the university.”

Submissions to the Fan Studies Network Australasia Conference are open until August 9th.